Motivational speaker, actor and now first-time author M.J. Dougherty knows that failing, although discouraging, is sometimes necessary in order to move on to bigger and better. After a number of decisions didn’t go Dougherty’s way, he began to realize that he could benefit from the lessons he was learning along his road of self-discovery. Because of those lessons, Dougherty decided to pen, Life Lessons from a Total Failure (Amazon, August 17, 2016).
To understand more about Dougherty and what led him to write his debut book, check out what he had to say in the Q&A below and then read an excerpt from the book!
BookTrib: What lesson was the most difficult thing to learn through your failures?
M.J. Dougherty: While I was in the middle of my ever-mounting failures, I constantly felt like a victim. “Why me?” “Poor me.” “It’s not fair!” These thoughts were in my mind all of the time. After I started putting my life back together, I realized that a lot of these thoughts still would creep into my mind. It was easy to indulge in them and think that it was all bad luck or that I was wronged, but the truth was harder to face. All of my failures happened because of choices I made. Sure, there were circumstances that weren’t in my control, but how I reacted to them and the decisions I made when facing them was all on me. When you realize that your actions- good or bad- are the key factors that shape your life, it takes away your ability to pass blame on, which can almost be a comfort when you are in the throes of chaos. It is a tough pill to swallow and a hard lesson to learn, but taking responsibility and stopping the victim mentality is essential to moving on and letting go of your past.
BT: What was your favorite thing about writing this book?
M.J.D.: It isn’t too often in life that we take the time to sit and really self-reflect. As I was writing this book however, I had no choice but to look at my life and the person that I am. I gained a better understanding for who I wanted to be and wasn’t as worried about the guy I had been. If I hadn’t been putting the puzzle pieces of my story together, I wouldn’t have gotten a better understanding of my personal strengths and weaknesses, and what I think is important from life. Moving forward, I have a much better sense of the man I ultimately want to be before my time on this earth is through. Without taking the time to write this book, I may not have ever come to that realization with such clarity.
BT: What are you hoping readers will ultimately take away from Life Lessons from a Total Failure?
M.J.D.: I hope people understand that not only is it OK, but it is essential to be a bit selfish in life. For us to be the best we can be for those we love and the world around us, we have to learn to take care of ourselves, love ourselves, and forgive ourselves. Life is a gift and it is so important that we appreciate that gift and treat it well.
The who, why and what.
Life is hard. Not only is it hard, but trying to get it to turn out the way we want seems impossible most of the time. No matter how hard we plan, try, and hope, life often has plans for us that may be different from our own. For example, in my wildest dreams, I never thought I would write a book. Although I have a great fondness for books, I was never much of a writer; I was always more of a watcher. I grew up in a small town in a small house with my mom, dad, and older sister. Our little house was bordered by two highways and a few businesses, leading to most of my childhood taking place indoors with the only friends I had in my neighborhood: the ones on my TV.
Television was not just my entertainment growing up, it was an extension of who I was. I thought about life in relation to how it would play out on a sitcom. Oh, the sitcom! Without a doubt, my favorite programming genre. I spent hours watching reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore, The Brady Bunch, and Happy Days, to name just a few. I would wait all week for Friday nights to tune in to ABC’s “TGIF” for Full House, Step by Step, Perfect Strangers, and Family Matters. Add Saved by the Bell, The Facts of Life, The Golden Girls, and The Cosby Show into the mix, and that pretty much made up my childhood world.
My teenage life became much more social, but I certainly didn’t stray from my love of TV. In fact, shows like Friends became part of my daily routine. I felt a sense of comfort and normality just hearing “I’ll Be There for You” playing in the background of my life. In many ways, this obsession with the world I watched through the tube led to the feeling that my life played out as though I was a sitcom character. I was convinced that after a long, hard day’s work of being omnipotent, God would kick his feet up and tune in to The M.J. Show to see what hijinks and drama unfolded that week.
And honestly, like clever weekly scripts, my life has always been a series of extreme highs and lows – without much middle ground. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for me to win the grand prize from a raffle I didn’t realize I entered on the same day I nearly died while walking under a tree struck by lightning (true story). In the course of one month, I could bounce my rent check, not know how I would pay my bills, and then get an unexpected bonus at work that brought me back into the black on the same day my utilities were about to be shut off. That’s just how my life was. It was my normal, even though I knew how abnormal it was to others.
Looking back, my life has had years of extremely good times contrasted with horrifically tragic times. I was a self-proclaimed flake who flitted about in hopes of finding myself and some form of direction. I bounced from city to city, state to state, and country to country, all the while picturing an opening sequence featuring me finally getting a fresh start as the epic theme song to The M.J. Show played. I love a good theme song. I was always on the move, looking for that perfect place with perfect people where I could be my perfect self. What I learned, however, is that life does not play out like a sitcom, and a perfect life is only found on TV.
My actions, thinking, and issues, along with a healthy dose of fate, all contributed to my life looking progressively more like a melodrama rather than a comedy as I got older. I may have made mistakes and displayed poor judgment consistently through my teens and early twenties, but when you are that young, you have an incredible way of rationalizing your behavior and staying positive for the future.
I assumed that this constant feeling of tripping into each new day while keeping my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t fall was just how life was supposed to be. I patiently waited for the day soft music would start playing in the background while someone gave me a heartfelt talk, à la Danny Tanner, telling me how everything was going to be okay and I would soon find happiness. Unfortunately, as the years rolled on, that never happened, and my ratings must have taken a sharp decline, because my story line was about to go to a much darker place than I had ever experienced or imagined. It may have made my life hell, but it made my life one hell of a story.
I think about this dark time in my life as my “made-for-TV movie” era. You know the type of movie I am talking about: the type that plays endlessly on Lifetime, starring actors like Robert Ulrich or Meredith Baxter Birney, and titled something ridiculous like Fighting Destiny for the Ultimate Love of Self: The John Doe Story. The ones so over the top and dramatic, nobody possibly believes they could happen, even when they are “based on a true story.” Well, the period of my life I am about to share was just that type of story.
It isn’t based on a true story. It is my story.
I know some people may read this and think, “Big whoop! It could have been much worse. You could be starving in Africa!” And believe me, I know this and appreciate what I have. I do realize now, though, that no matter how it seems to you, someone’s journey, struggle, and pain, is as real and intense to them as that hunger is to the starving child with no food. Perspective is a powerful thing.
Understanding people’s perspectives and the fact that we all struggle and fail is what led me to share my story. Although I felt for a long time that my struggles were singular and my mistakes were one of a kind, I’ve realized more and more that my failures connect me with people more than they divide. Whether it’s a young adult desperately trying to fit in or an established, mature adult who feels trapped in life, we all have things about us we would like to change and issues that we struggle with.
I also realized that we have an urge to hide our issues and mistakes, and we tend to feel a sense of shame for having them. Knowing that others have felt this shame and hurt is the real reason I wrote this book. I don’t ever want people to think they are alone in their struggles because in some ways, we have all been there. In fact, the more I shared my struggles and issues, the more I felt liberated and healed from them. It is common to want to sweep problems under the rug, but that never really ends up well for anyone. Learning how to accept and grow from the worst parts of our lives is the most important thing we can do for ourselves. As a bonus, when we start being real and honest with ourselves, people notice, and we start making an impact on those around us.
So that is why I decided to share the story of this crazy time in my life. I would have loved to call this story The Facts of Life or Growing Pains, as I feel this was the time in my life where I was forced to grow up and learn about who I really was and how I related to the world around me, but unfortunately these catchy titles were already taken. The Wonder Years? Definitely not. I had to reach deep and think about a title that would not only capture someone’s attention but really describe how I thought about this time in my life back then. So without further ado, I invite you to settle in, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the transcript from my made-for-TV movie, Life Lessons from a Total Failure: The M.J. Dougherty Story.
Life is a journey.
Walking around the small room and seeing every barstool full, along with most of the tables, gave me such a feeling of pride. I would often stand back and gaze at the long, narrow room in disbelief that I, of all people, that boy who couldn’t stay still, owned a bar. Up to this point, life had been such a whirlwind since leaving my parents’ house at eighteen. I hadn’t stayed in one country, let alone one city, for more than a year and a half. Now here I was, grown up, becoming stable, and returning to my roots.
I owned and operated The Wine Bar in Scranton, PA, and was playing my part in what the locals were calling the city’s renaissance. In a million years, I never could have foreseen me moving back to Pennsylvania and opening a business, but somehow it just felt right. At 27 years old, and after years of crazy living, countless mistakes, and never-ending uncertainty, I was excited to embrace my new life here and proud to have accomplished such a feat at such a young age. Look out, world, M.J. Dougherty, entrepreneur, has taken the stage. Cue the theme song!
To fully appreciate my change in fortune, you just need to consider my life as it was only a few months earlier. I had been living with my best friend since high school, Nathan, in Summit County, Colorado. I moved to Colorado from Amsterdam at age 25 after finding out that Nathan had cancer. While abroad, Nathan had been emailing me telling me he needed to talk with me. I assumed he was getting engaged to his girlfriend at the time and called as soon as I got the chance. I never expected for him to inform me that he had Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I was devastated. What made it worse for him though, was that his grandmother was also very sick at the time and his mom informed him he would have to move back to Pennsylvania as she couldn’t take care of two people, in two states, at the same time. After talking to Nathan a bit more, I decided to move to the little mountain town of Frisco, where he was living, to help take care of him through his illness.
It had been a really trying time, as Nathan’s cancer was aggressive, and he had to undergo lots of intense treatments, including chemotherapy, radiation, and ultimately a stem cell transplant. The responsibility I felt for his life was overwhelming due to the constant reminders from the doctors about how any germs or illness he came in contact with could kill him. I spent months working to pay the bills, cooking, cleaning, and driving to and from Denver for doctor appointments and medical procedures.
I was working at a bank locally as a teller and the job turned out to be more of an escape than a place of employment. So many days I would go into work and my boss, Alyssa, would call me into her office to see how I was doing, just to have me shut the door and let me cry for hours at a time. I was the only guy who worked in the branch and these women who I worked with were my therapy. Without them, and the lovely customers, I would have probably gone nuts. Thankfully, Colorado had amazing people to help me through this terrible time and I love them dearly for it.
Nathan finally started to recover and return to an independent lifestyle after about a year. By this time, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Even my beloved bank friends couldn’t help my anxiety and nerves. I often found myself planning trips out of Colorado and spending hours fantasizing about life after being a care giver. This time was also a very lonely time for me due to the fact that I was one of very few gay people in the town. Although I had great friends and was living with one of my best friends in the world, I still felt very lonely, but the last thing in the world I had energy for was a love life. Fate, on the other hand, had its own plans for me…
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